Mine workers walk past the pit head at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Masimthembe shaft in Westonaria. Picture: REUTERS
Mine workers walk past the pit head at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Masimthembe shaft in Westonaria. Picture: REUTERS

Sibanye-Stillwater says workers’ failure to follow rules and procedures is largely to blame for a spike in fatal accidents at its South African operations, where 19 people have died since January.

The company accounts for more than a third of the deaths in South African mines this year, and faces growing criticism from unions and the government.

In the latest incident, four workers died and one was still missing on Tuesday night at its Kloof operation.

"It is inexplicable to us," Sibanye spokesman James Wellsted said of the increase in fatal accidents. "We think a lot of it is behavioural and due to people taking risks and not following safety procedures."

Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe visited the mine with inspectors from his department on Tuesday night.

In a series of tweets from the mine on Tuesday night, he acknowledged that workers’ safety was partly their responsibility, but emphasised that mine owners had a legal obligation to provide safe working environments.

"There is a big challenge for us to stop the Kloof & Driefontein reef from becoming a killing field of the mining industry. We will apply the rule of law to be hard on the transgressions," he tweeted.

"I’m encouraged by the fact that the safety steward & other 2 workers turned back when the heat was rising. The principle of workers refusing to enter a dangerous place is meant to save lives. Half the time, workers are forced into areas that are not safe. That should be corrected."

Sibanye, which is the biggest gold mining employer in the country and operates some of the deeper mines, is asking unions and the government for help to get workers to comply with procedures, and arranged a "safety summit" in May to discuss the issues.

The company employs 64,502 people including contractors in SA, where mining safety has been a problem for decades.

The country’s mines are among the world’s deepest and oldest, with workers going as deep as 3km in search of ore that’s been mined commercially for over a century.

While safety has improved since the end of apartheid, fatalities in the sector increased last year for the first time in a decade.

The workers who died at Kloof this week had strayed into an abandoned area with no ventilation, Wellsted said. It was unclear what they were doing there, he said.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) secretary-general David Sipunzi said the area should have been barricaded.

NUM’s safety chairperson, Peter Bailey, said Sibanye "must take responsibility" for the deaths and should be forced to shut down all its mines to allow for a full safety inspection.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on mineral resources has called for "unusual action" to be taken, given the high number of fatalities in a short time.

"The committee also believes that the Department of Mineral Resources has questions to answer in the wake of these developments. Furthermore‚ the department should hold shareholders accountable for senior management’s remuneration packages and the dividends that are shared among them‚ over the dead bodies of mine workers."

Committee chairperson Sahlulele Luzipo called for a swift and thorough inspection of the health and safety measures at Sibanye’s mines and urged maximum sanctions for any lapses.

In May, seven people died at Sibanye’s Driefontein mine after an earth tremor triggered a rock-fall. In February, nearly 1,000 workers were trapped underground for more than a day at Sibanye’s Beatrix mine after a severe storm damaged electricity lines cutting off power supply.

Earth tremors, or seismic events as the companies call them, are regular occurrences in deep mines, says Bernard Swanepoel, a former CEO of Harmony Gold and board member of Impala Platinum.

When ore bodies become narrower as reserves run out, it becomes more difficult to automate the operations to keep workers away from dangerous areas.

"To pretend there is no risk is misleading," Swanepoel said. "Unfortunately deep-level mining is inherently a lot riskier."

There’s not much companies can do to completely eliminate mining deaths, says Rene Hochreiter, analyst at Noah Capital Markets.

"The alternative is to shut down gold mines completely," he said. "The fatalities are negative for Sibanye, but at the risk of sounding flippant, that’s life. You never get zero fatalities at deep-level mining."

Bloomberg and Staff Writers